Today, on Yom HaShoah, Israel commemorates and honours the six million Jewish lives lost during the Holocaust. It is a day of reflection, mourning, and remembrance of the atrocities that were committed against the Jewish people. When you walk into Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, the first impression you would get is the connection between the Holocaust and Christianity. While all true Christians know you cannot be a true Christian and be anti-Semitic, the uncomfortable truth is that the Holocaust and the history of Christian anti-Semitism are intricately connected, and the seeds of the Holocaust were sown long before the Nazis came to power. As Christians, it is essential for us to know this history and confront the historical role our forefathers played in this tragic event.
Chrysostom and the “Christ-Killers”
One of the earliest examples of Christian anti-Semitism can be traced back to the influential early Christian leader, John Chrysostom. As the Archbishop of Constantinople in the late 4th century, Chrysostom’s words carried significant weight within the early Church. In a series of sermons known as “Adversus Judaeos” (Against the Jews), Chrysostom cast Jews as Christ-killers, planting the seeds of anti-Semitism that would grow and fester for centuries to come (Wilken, 1983).
In these sermons, Chrysostom employed a harsh and vitriolic rhetoric to describe Jews, declaring, “The Jews are the most worthless of all men. They are lecherous, greedy, rapacious. They are perfidious murderers of Christ.” By demonising Jews and accusing them of deicide, Chrysostom not only perpetuated anti-Semitism but also laid the groundwork for the suffering and persecution of Jewish people at the hands of Christians in the centuries that followed. The tragic legacy of these early teachings would reverberate throughout history, contributing to a cycle of hatred and violence that would culminate in the horrors of the Holocaust.
The Crusades: A Trail of Bloodshed and Sorrow
During the Crusades (1095-1291), Christian knights embarked on a mission to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim rule, a seemingly noble cause that quickly turned into a tragic tale of violence and persecution. In their fervour to reclaim the land for Christianity, these knights targeted not only Muslims but also Jewish communities along the way, leaving a trail of bloodshed and sorrow in their wake (Riley-Smith, 2005).
Cities like Mainz, Worms, and Cologne witnessed the brutal slaughter of thousands of Jews, as men, women, and children were mercilessly killed in the name of Christ. The descriptions of these events are harrowing, with horrific accounts of babies being torn from their mothers’ arms and dashed against walls (Chazan, 1987). The anguish and terror experienced by these innocent victims is unimaginable, their lives cut short by a wave of religious fanaticism that saw them as enemies rather than fellow human beings. The Crusades stand as a chilling reminder of the horrors that can unfold when religious zealotry is allowed to overshadow compassion and understanding.
The Spanish Inquisition: A Nightmare of Persecution and Forced Conversions
The Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) represents another dark chapter in the history of Christian anti-Semitism. Initiated by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, this brutal campaign targeted Jews, forcing them to convert to Christianity or flee the country (Kamen, 1999). Those who chose conversion, known as “conversos”, faced constant suspicion, torture, and execution, as the Inquisition zealously sought to root out any traces of their former faith.
Jewish men and women who were suspected of secretly maintaining Jewish practices, even something as simple as lighting the Shabbat candles, were subjected to unimaginable cruelty. They were often burned at the stake or tortured using barbaric methods such as the strappado and the rack (Roth, 1964). This relentless persecution drove countless innocent individuals to endure unimaginable pain, with families torn apart and lives destroyed in the name of religious purity. The Spanish Inquisition serves as a haunting reminder of the depths of human cruelty that can arise when hatred and prejudice are allowed to fester unchecked.
Martin Luther: A Reformer’s Descent into Anti-Semitism
Martin Luther, a key figure in the Protestant Reformation, initially showed a friendly attitude towards Jews, believing that they would embrace his version of Christianity. However, as time passed and Jews did not convert, his tolerance turned to bitterness and hatred. This dark underbelly of anti-Semitism was revealed towards the end of his life in his treatise “On the Jews and Their Lies,” in which he expressed hateful sentiments and called for violence against Jews, stating: “First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn… Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed” (Luther, 1543).
In the same treatise, Luther proposed a number of other measures against Jews, which included:
- Confiscating Jewish prayer books and Talmudic writings
- Forbidding rabbis to teach, under the threat of death
- Revoking safe-conduct documents that allow Jews to travel
- Prohibiting usury and confiscating all Jewish-owned money and property
- Enforcing manual labour on Jews as a form of servitude
- Expelling Jews from areas where they have not yet been banished.
Luther further wrote, “We are at fault in not slaying them.” His chilling words served as a catalyst for anti-semitic persecution for centuries to come.
The Lutheran Church later repudiated these writings, but the damage had already been done. His ideas left a lasting scar on the relationship between Christians and Jews, and the hatred he espoused would, in part, pave the way for future atrocities against the Jewish people.
The Holocaust: A Culmination of Centuries of Anti-Semitism
The Holocaust, orchestrated by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, resulted in the systematic extermination of six million Jews. This unfathomable tragedy was, in part, fuelled by the long and deeply rooted history of Christian anti-Semitism. The Nazis drew upon this history to justify their genocidal campaign, even invoking the writings of Martin Luther as inspiration. Alfred Rosenberg, a key ideologue in the Nazi Party, eagerly promoted Luther’s anti-semitic writings and their connection to the “Aryan” struggle against Jews (Shirer, 1960).
Under the watchful eye of the SS and their collaborators, Jews were herded into concentration camps and extermination centres, where they were subjected to unimaginable cruelty and dehumanisation. They were forced into gas chambers, where they were asphyxiated with poisonous gas, and their lifeless bodies were burned in massive crematoria (Bauer, 2001). The scale of the atrocities committed against the Jewish people during the Holocaust remains unparalleled in human history, a horrifying testament to the destructive power of hatred and prejudice.
A Call to Repentance and Reconciliation
Most Christians today have no idea about these atrocities done in the name of Christ and are shocked to find out for the first time. They read in the New Testament that Jesus is Jewish and came as the Messiah of Israel, and they love the Jewish people as a result. What do we do with this information then?
As Dr. Michael Brown writes in “Our Hands Are Stained With Blood,” this knowledge should “drive us to our knees in repentance and intercession, and then to our feet in holy determination to break the cycle of sin and death, to fight against antisemitism wherever we find it, and to be a blessing to the Jewish people in the name of the one they still call ‘Yeshu,’ the one we call Jesus” (Brown, 1992).
For Christians, it is important that we educate ourselves and one another. Our forefathers created this mess, but it is our responsibility to clean it up. It is only with repentance that we can see healing and reconciliation, not just for the betterment of the world but for the sake of the gospel.
The Future Glory of Zion
Scripture foretells a glorious future for Zion (Jerusalem) in the age to come, when the Messiah returns and establishes His kingdom, bringing blessings to the nations. Prophet Isaiah writes, “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:2-3)
Ezekiel 36:24-28: “For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.”
Romans 11:25-27: “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.'”
All these promises are intrinsically connected to the gospel message: Jesus cannot return until the Jewish people welcome Him. Our preaching of the gospel to the nations is ultimately unto provoking the Jewish people to jealousy for their Messiah, and subsequently the return of Jesus to bring justice to the earth. As Paul wrote in Romans 11:11, “Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.” And as Jesus declared in Matthew 23:39, “For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'”
As Christians, it is essential that we understand our tragic past, so we can allow God to bring about healing, repentance and reconciliation with the Jewish people. In doing so, we can play a part in softening the Jewish people’s hearts towards the gospel and in preparing the way for the Messiah’s return. In the face of the tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism, we must uphold the gospel’s message of redemption and pray for the healing of the deep wounds inflicted upon the Jewish people in the name of Christ. Only then can we truly hope to see the promise of Zion fulfilled, the glorious return of our Messiah to establish peace and justice, bringing blessings to all nations.
- Wilken, R. L. (1983). John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century. University of California Press.
- Chazan, R. (1987). European Jewry and the First Crusade. University of California Press.
- Riley-Smith, J. (2005). The Crusades: A History. Yale University Press.
- Luther, M. (1543). On the Jews and Their Lies.
- Brown, M. L. (1992). Our Hands Are Stained with Blood: The Tragic Story of the “Church” and the Jewish People. Destiny Image Publishers.